When Gibraltar was finally admitted into the footballing community on May 24th 2013, it brought the end to a case that had rumbled through the UEFA headquarters in Nyon since 1999. Members of the Gibraltar delegation erupted into celebration knowing that they can progress their football through international competition and grants from European football’s governing body.
However, Michel Platini applied a condition to their membership in UEFA: they would not play European qualifiers against their neighbours Spain. It is clearly a way in which to appease the Spanish, who have been extremely vocal about their opposition to Gibraltar being admitted.
The Spanish government released a statement before the announcement of Gibraltar’s membership stating “the government will continue opposing by all legal means to admit the Gibraltar Football Association as a full member of UEFA”.
“The government will continue opposing holding competitions between the official sports teams of Spain and the combined sports of the colony of Gibraltar.”
Although the Gibraltarians FA may not be particularly heartbroken at the idea of not having to play the World Cup and European Championship victors, it does show the influence of power the Spanish yield and by threatening to withdraw their exports of Barcelona, Madrid and the national team they have forced the hand of UEFA.
By forbidding a Gibraltar/Spain fixture, UEFA are adding it to a list of countries which have to be kept apart in qualifying. This list contains any matches between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Russia and Georgia. When you consider why these matches are avoided it makes UEFA’s most recent decision even more ridiculous.
Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war in 1991 after a dispute over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, based in Azerbaijan but made up of mostly Armenians. The conflict lasted until a ceasefire in 1994 and resulted in thousands of deaths and huge communities being displaced as borders were redrawn.
The hangover of the war still rumbles on and both governments have no diplomatic ties, with war rhetoric regularly being released and the threat of more conflict is constant, especially when soldiers enter into battles along the border (between 2010 and 2012 60 soldiers were killed).
The more recent conflict between Russia and Georgia was widely condemned and recent reports and investigations have found evidence of many human rights abuses and massacres back in 2008.
It began over a Georgian invasion of South Ossetia, an area with they believe is theirs rather than their Russian neighbours. The Russians responded forcefully when they invaded the capital of Tbilisi, and brought the city to the ground with numerous air strikes.
Although FIFA and UEFA constantly state that they endeavour to separate sport and politics (and constantly undermine it in all areas of their work), in these cases they had to intervene in order to keep players and fans safe and to eradicate any spark for more conflict.
However, the Spanish and Gibraltar rivalry is baseless as the Spanish are constantly pushing a point which has no political or legal standing. Gibraltar has been a British overseas territory since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and since then the Spanish have had no administrative power, or any right to any.
The Spanish are also violating Article 59 of the UEFA statutes they signed up to when entering UEFA which demanded the respect for the rulings of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. CAS ruled in favour of Gibraltar membership in 2007 and 2011, which is why UEFA has admitted them into the continent’s footballing family.
By granting this consideration for Spain they have completely shown themselves to lack the back bone to stand up to the biggest nations and promote the very principles they drew up. Forbid fixtures between countries that have bloody and violent pasts in order to protect their football communities, but don’t give in to the wishes of Spanish bullying.